The Heartsnatcher has a sinister and mysterious reputation.
This creature is known for taking away the hearts of unsuspecting victims, leaving behind only aching sorrow and despair in its wake.
People have long feared and been wary of the Heartsnatcher, but little is known about its true nature and origin. This being, whose name is whispered in hushed tones, is a force to be reckoned with.
Appearing on the screen five minutes into Roger Vadim’s 1959 Les liaisons dangereuses, Boris Vian–poet, novelist, jazz lyricist–plays a minor role as a French foreign minister. When Jeanne Moreau remarks that she likes him a lot, Vian responds that it “hurts his heart”.
She inquired, “Do you have one?”
Since the time her spouse presented them, he has had a strong fondness for her.
Jeanne Moreau remarks to be thankful, saying that hearts are rare in this time.
Vian was a man who, despite his frail constitution, led an active life. Born in Ville d’Avray, France in 1920, his childhood was plagued with health issues, including a weak heart which he knew would eventually lead to his death.
During World War II he trained as an engineer and wrote, as well as playing jazz trumpet with amateur nightclub bands. His love of jazz and good times led him to the center of the newly liberated postwar renaissance.
He was well-known in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood, befriending Jean-Paul Sartre, Alberto Giacometti, and surrealist Georges Hugnet.
Additionally, he was friends with Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prevert, and Albert Camus. During the fourteen years of his literary career, he wrote ten novels, forty-two short stories, four collections of poetry, seven plays, six opera librettos, and fifty-plus articles.
Vian also translated twenty works from English, including novels by Raymond Chandler, Nelson Algren, and the five-hundred-page memoir of General Omar Bradley, which he reportedly completed in two weeks.
Despite not achieving the same level of recognition as contemporaries like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, Vian’s four pseudonymous pulp novels did gain notoriety.
They were deemed so outrageous that he was taken to court and fined for outraging public morals. While many notable authors have started out writing pulp (Kurt Vonnegut, David Markson), some have even managed to elevate it to a piece of art (Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon).
Vian’s career, however, was quite unique in the literary world. In 1953, he decided to abandon fiction and embarked on a second career as a lyricist, producing more than four hundred songs in the six years preceding his death.
In 1946, Vian’s first work, J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Spit on Your Graves), was published to a great deal of controversy.5 It was initially presented as a translation of a pulp novel written by an African-American author, Vernon Sullivan, who had supposedly been unable to find an American publisher.
This book became immensely successful due to two scandals: the first being a lawsuit to ban the novel, and the second being a copy of the book found in the hotel room of a murderer with certain passages circled.
Three more books were published under the same name, until 1953 when it was finally revealed that Vernon Sullivan was a fictitious character.
Vian drew inspiration from Faulkner and American crime fiction and his close ties to African American jazz musicians.
He was made aware of the mistreatment of African Americans from his friends, and he expressed his disapproval of this in one of his jazz columns. His novel Spit follows a black character bent on revenge for his brother’s death, but the plot is muddled, as Vian had never been to America.
His descriptions are unclear, his geography is confusing, and his portrayal of racism is a shallow caricature when compared to Richard Wright’s Native Son. The story is more noticeable for its misogyny, as the narrator is fixated on seducing young women instead of striving for justice.
No matter its flaws, the book is unmistakably Vianian. The story structure disregards any sense of realism or believability; effects are isolated from their causes; the perspective suddenly shifts at the conclusion; and, in the end, everyone dies.
Finally, we come to the topic of Death.
Vian’s works, even his “throwaways,” emit an energetic joy for life and a righteous rage against war and injustice. His characters, major and minor, suffer harsh and sudden deaths, which might appear callous, but is instead a reflection of his deep empathy. Heartsnatcher, for example, displays a crucifixion of a stallion with detail that could rival religious art of the Northern Renaissance.
Vian wanted to express the idea that life could end for any reason, especially those as trivial as control, faith, greed, politics, obstinacy, or foolishness. In many of his works, the perpetrator of death is an authoritative figure, like police officers, employers, and lawyers. The short story “Journey to Khonostrov” furthers this message, as five strangers on a train torture and maim a sixth for no given reason.
When they arrive at the station in Khonostrov, the victim awakens and, as blood is spread throughout, comments on his lack of conversation. It is a revised version of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” where the consequence is much more extreme than just being removed from the job. Vian’s main theme, both literally and biographically, is how to endure when death is sudden, impartial, and unpredictable.
It is evident that Vian’s writing has been influenced by the surrealists; however, a more detailed examination reveals that the two are not quite comparable. Vian’s writings are anything but random and lack a goal of digging into the subconscious. Rather, he utilizes language to evoke associations.
The characters of Vian occupy a unique linguistic landscape which is a combination of the literal and the metaphorical. The environment of his fictional worlds is often the result of the psychological and emotional states of his characters. As an example, from his novel L ‘Ecume des jours, Vian portrays a young man heartsick with longing outside of a friend’s house, when he notices two girls enter.
He describes the effect as his heart expanding “to ten times its normal size, becoming completely weightless, [and] lifted him up above the earth, and he went straight in after them.” Vian is not merely being figurative in this instance, as he truly means that the emotion of the young man literally made him float. Emotions and the words used to express them are both signifier and signified and they persist together. Vian is closer to the science fiction style of writing, which relies on allegory and symbolism, and to his colleague Queneau, who appreciates puns and wordplay. Reading Vian reveals that trying to distinguish between what is real and what is fictional is a moot point.
Queneau labeled L’Ecume des jours “the most heartbreakingly poignant modern love story ever written.” This novel has been the most successful of Vian’s works and it is the foundation of his literary status. In his foreword, Vian mentions “only two things really matter–there’s love… and there’s the music of Duke Ellington.” This book takes up the subject of the former, combining the major topics of his short stories–the cost of desire and life in the shadow of death–with a more advanced twist.
Policemen are still violent, booted toughs; medical experts are still charlatans and butchers in the same measure; and labor is still emotionally destructive in all its incarnations. But L’Ecume presents the harsher truth that even in a perfect world no one is exempt from misfortune, and there is no one to blame.
Colin is wealthy, and has all the trappings of a perfect life–except a partner to share it with. That all changes when he meets Chloe and the two instantly fall in love. Her name, Chloe, is derived from the Greek for tender bud, and throughout their relationship she is surrounded by flowers. Unfortunately, an insidious water lily takes root in her lung, deteriorating her health and ultimately leading to the destruction of their life together.
As her health declines, their beautiful apartment begins to suffer, with windows shrinking and closing, strange projections descending from the ceiling, and the mice turning gray. To pay for her treatments, Colin has to sell his possessions and take a job, sacrificing all he has for his beloved Chloe–even though it won’t save her.
The fastidious mouse is unable to elude his fate. His commitment to Colin leads him to a passionate (although irrational) trade-off with a cat, who in exchange for consuming the mouse will do something to assist Colin, slowly wasting away from his sorrow.
The internal struggle Vian grapples with is that love, one of the only two life-altering factors, requires giving something up and often this is to no avail.
No one is able to get away unscathed. What saves L ‘Ecume (and all of Vian’s work) from having the same dismal outcome as a Thomas Hardy novel is the lightheartedness and wit of Vian’s writing. When one character states “That’s life” in a despondent way, Colin replies, “It isn’t.” Vian refused to be associated with his friend Sartre’s ideas of existentialism. Vian embraced every aspect of life, even when aware of its harshness. L ‘Ecume is a reflection of both joy and grief.
This section explores the concept of loving without wisdom or in a way that is not healthful.
In the same year of 1946, Vian’s next novel, L’Autumne a pekin (Autumn in Peking),10 can be seen as an alternate, Fatal Attraction-like version of L’Ecume. A team of workers toil in the barren desert of Exopotamie to construct a railroad that does not lead anywhere, all while a love triangle between three friends forms, set against a backdrop of a Sergio Leone film. An abbot and his hermit companions, a hotel in which everyone resides, a doctor who builds model planes, and an archaeological site beneath the hotel are all present.
Angel is deeply in love with Rochelle, yet harbors resentment towards Anne (a man), who is using Rochelle for his own sexual desires. As the railroad is slowly but surely being built, it passes directly through the hotel, as well as through the archaeological site. Angel is worried that Anne’s actions are taking a toll on Rochelle. Just as Anne is about to give up on her, Angel kills them both.
Vian’s Autumn is a novel of contrasts, from mercy killing to fornication, bureaucracy and labor to love and lust, and the industrial railroad and archaeological excavation. Although it is a subtle and obscure piece, characters in the novel take the opportunity to explore their beliefs through lengthy conversations.
This text is typically seen as a “guy’s book”, with its male-dominated sexual politics, yet it is still sprinkled with witty sayings and a cast of characters who help to make up for the protagonist’s shortcomings. Written in the same year as L ‘Autumne a pekin ( Autumn in Peking ), Vian’s next novel, could be interpreted as a darker version of the former. A trio of men are working in the desert of Exopotamie to build a railroad, while a love triangle between them and Rochelle grows.
The abbot and his hermit-like crew, the doctor with his model planes, and the archaeological site in the backyard, all set the tone of a Sergio Leone film. Eventually, Angel’s jealousy and fear of Anne’s influence on Rochelle leads him to take the lives of both his friends.
A song of veneration and joy is sung, glorifying the Lord’s greatness.
The last of Vian’s works of fiction, L’Arrache-coeur (Heartsnatcher) is a book which does not focus on plot. It is a conglomeration of beautiful and often alarming vignettes. It starts with a common literary trope; a stranger arrives in a town with no background or desires. The stranger, Timortis, wants to be able to experience other’s emotions and feelings.
As a reward for helping Clementine give birth to triplets, Timortis is given a home with her and her husband, Angel. Clementine’s experience of giving birth to the triplets has caused her to despise physical contact and her husband.
Timortis’s venture of identity vampirism is not successful. He spends much of his time visiting places in the town such as the Old Folks Fair, where elderly people are sold; the egg-shaped church, where the vicar fights the Devil in a public match; the carpenter’s shop, where apprentices are maltreated; and the boatman Glory Hallelujah, who uses his teeth to take out remnants from a river of blood. It is Glory Hallelujah who carries all the town’s disgrace, permitting it to act badly. Timortis eventually becomes close with Glory Hallelujah, and when Hallelujah passes away, he takes over his role.
Noel, Joel, and Alfa Romeo are taught how to communicate, move about, and soar through the air. Clementine, unaware of their special talents, is overly protective and obliterates the plants in the garden, licks the backsides of her sons, and sets up a barricade of Nothingness around the house. This is an example of a different kind of love, or a mother as the ultimate authority figure, that denies her kids the opportunity to experience life and its risks, all in the name of affection.
In Heartsnatcher, Vian expresses his verbal playfulness and creative genius in full glory. His words are vivid and poetic, while his characters are in pursuit of freedom from fear and longing. Ultimately, Clementine and Timortis find a form of stagnant peace, which may be even more devastating than death. This is not a warning story, but rather an examination of how longings, love, and suffering are interweaved. Vian’s understanding is that they are all intertwined.
The style of Vian’s writing matured and became more cynical over the course of the three novels, reflecting the perversion of love into oppression. It’s possible this, in addition to the lack of success the novels achieved, led him to focus his efforts on the performative. His lyrics and plays combined the serious and farcical with ease, without the need to contend with any narrative or emotional elements.
The politics of the author are very noticeable in his plays, The Knacker ‘s ABCs (1950), The General ‘s Tea Party (1962), and The Empire Builders (1959). These are both broad parodies of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and highly political. Even though they talk about the military and war, these plays focus more on the personal faults related with them.
The play The Knacker’s ABCs features a major theme of the Pit, which was previously introduced in Vian’s L’Ecume and Heartsnatcher as the sewer and river of blood, respectively. The plot follows a horse butcher from Normandy and his family, who are preparing for the marriage of their daughter Marie to a German soldier. American, French and German soldiers enter and exit frequently, and there is a lot of bombing happening offstage. The characters in the play are all unique, yet somehow interchangeable – with multiple Maries and an apprentice that has to cross-dress.
They all desire the same things, yet are all fated for the same end – being thrown into the pit. The play ends with the entire set exploding and everyone dying. The comical aspects of the production, in spite of its grim subject, are reminiscent of Chaplin’s Noises Off but with a World War II setting.
One of Vian’s most performed plays, The Empire Builders, is more similar to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and other absurdist theater compared to his other works. It was his last piece of literature and wasn’t put on until after his death. It is a satirical, dark, and cynical allegory in which a former horse butcher, his wife, daughter Zenobia, and a maid called Mug, are all driven by a mysterious, intense Noise.
Over the course of three acts, they are led to ever-smaller apartments and abandon their belongings and each other until only the dad is left. He is wearing his military attire and carrying his pistol and is faced with the Schmurz (part mummy, part zombie). This figure has been around with them from the start, mute and persistent, yet the daughter is the only one that acknowledges it, while the others act as if it’s not there, even as they hurt it. This play is related to the political climate of 1950s France, when colonies were in revolt, and the Schmurz is a representation of the exploited. The father, even though he tries to ignore it, eventually has to confront it.
At the end, he kills the Schmurz, however, the Noise grows louder and other similar figures take the stage. The consequences of being caught by the Noise or overwhelmed by the Schmurz are left to the imagination…but one can imagine it is the Pit rising rather than hovering, to meet the characters.
Vian’s vehement anti-war stance displayed itself in his pop songs, the most famous of which being “Le deserteur” (first performed in 1954). In the song, he wrote a letter to the French president, refusing to fight in the war and “kill wretched people.”14 Unfortunately, the song was not well-received by the public, and was even banned from the radio and had the production of the entire album discontinued. After some time, Mouloudji changed the ending slightly and made it more popular, and it was then adopted by American pacifist folksingers such as Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Songs can be composed that are achievable and those that may prove to be unattainable.
In 1943, Vian wrote his first song, “Au bon vieux temps,” in a style of “comic-realism of old black Southern songs.”15 As a seventeen-year-old, he had taken up the trumpet and was playing in an amateur jazz orchestra at the club Tabou in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. During the late ’40s and early ’50s, he was contributing criticism to the magazines Jazz Hot, Camus’s Combat, and Jazz News. His pieces16 contained the same wit and irreverence found in his other work, sometimes even displaying a morbid nature (for instance, one article named “Should All White Jazz Musicians Be Executed?”). His enthusiasm was simple and contagious, with his criticism being objective and free of agenda or hostility. He once said, “What are critics really after? I can speak only for myself, but I know what I’m looking for: to increase demand, for more opportunities to listen to Ellington, Parker, Gillespie, Louis, Ella, Peterson and the others… The audience knows or doesn’t know what jazz is. The critic merely helps them know a tiny little bit more.”
At the same time he had to give up the trumpet in 1950 due to health issues, Boris Vian wrote songs, as well as plays, operas, and musicals. In 1955, he recorded his lyrics for two 45s, “Possible Songs” and “Impossible Songs,” which included the well-known songs “Complainte du progres,” “J’suis snob,” “La Java des bombes atomiques,” and the notorious “Le Deserteur.” Additionally, Vian worked for record labels Philips and Barclay in the late 1950s, producing jazz collections and writing songs such as “J’coute cher” and “Rock and roll-mops” for French vocalists.
The complete works of Vian fill up almost an entire volume, which contains an array of titles and tunes ranging from the gentle “A little love and sentiment” to “I have no regrets” to the self-explanatory “I’m a perverse monster.” According to artist Henri Salvador, Vian loathed writing love songs, calling them “cucul,” or corny. Rather, his songs focused on politics and emotions: the pleasure of attending the cinema, of taking holidays, of being twenty (“J’ai vingt ans, la vie est belle”), of drinking to forget, and of the atomic bomb (like Randy Newman’s “Political Science”). Vian even composed a feminist anthem, urging women to not give up the joys of independence for relationships with the untrustworthy gender.
The complexity of Vian’s style, with its wordplay and neologisms, lessens in comparison to the psychological complexity of his work. In his songs and plays, he appears to be almost setting aside language to express his wit and politics with elegance but without reserve.
In Les liaisons dangereuses, Vian makes an encore appearance for a brief moment, in the sequence following Valmont’s successful attempt at seducing Marianne.
Vian’s oft-experienced narrative of the privileged class’ abusive authority begins to take shape, with a series of implausible betrayals, a ravishing beauty on the brink of insanity, and a tragic brick-induced head-injury at a gathering in the distance, with Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers providing the soundtrack.
At the end of their time together, Vian is getting ready to go to a gathering, and Valmont inquires, “Are you familiar with the route?”
Vian’s response was that they had it memorized.
The movie has been widely panned and is not to be confused with the 1978 U.S. title of the same name. It is noted for its sociological insight of the 1950s American South, portrayed as a place where “elderly aristocrats are served by African-American footmen in manicured gardens, while leather-clad bikers engage in electric chair stunts in a nearby ice cream shop” (according to the New York Times, June 29, 1963).
The second of the Vernon Sullivan thrillers will be getting an English edition, soon to be released by Tam Tam Books. As of now, that is the plan.
In 1998, Tam Tam Books published the translation of Vian’s work and his American colleague, Milton Rosenthal, in a poorly done edition. Additionally, Vian adapted the novel into a play in 1948.
As mentioned in the preface to I Spit, a quote was included.
Vian appears to lack a political ideology, agenda, or doctrine–instead, he stands in opposition to racism, prejudice, chauvinism, and any form of deathly violence, particularly when expressed through politics.
In 1992, University of Nebraska Press released Vian’s only collection of short stories, Blues for a Black Cat, which contains eleven tales. Ten of these were published in his lifetime.
A range of different translations have been assigned to the novel and its title, ranging from Froth on the Daydream to Foam of the Daze to Mood Indigo. The quotes from the book come from the 1970 Penguin Modern Classics (UK) edition, which was translated by Stanley Chapman and went by the original title.
In 2005, Tam Tam Books published a well-annotated edition of Boris Vian’s Heartsnatcher. This is typical of Vian’s titles, where the title has no correlation to the content of the book.
Adolf Schmurz served as an alias of Vian’s.
At swans.com/library/art7/xxx071.html, one can find an accurate transcription of the French lyrics along with an English translation. In this typical instance of Vianian style, the vocalist predicts being shot dead in the street by soldiers at the end.
In my own free translations, I have taken from Vian’s collection of complete works: Chansons (vol. 11), which is published by Fayard.
Round About Close to Midnight, translated by American jazz critic Mike Zwerin and released in 1988 by Quartet Books, offers a selection of works.
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